Seven friends drive seven hundred miles to check on an eighth. That’s how it’s told to me. The wording is important. They’re not paying a visit. They’re not catching up. My best friends left New York City to check on Oliver Carpenter, our troubled friend who traded the Big Apple for a farm in the middle of the mitten of Michigan.
I’m in St. Louis when this happens. A conference for a temp job, of all things. I shouldn’t be there. I don’t belong there. I should be with them.
Let me set the table:
Oliver Carpenter is the hot button issue, the soup du jour. In our circle of thespians that’s often something to aspire to; who doesn’t want to be talked about? But when the group is bored, when there isn’t a more stimulating or legitimate quandary afoot, we have a tendency to promote the mundane to a disproportionately high status, one it doesn’t deserve. This happens all the time. Remind me to tell you about Karen’s superstition-trip one day. Oh what we endured.
So, this thing with Oliver. Is it a real issue or not? Should we be worried or not? Are we overreacting?
They take three cars to Michigan for various reasons. Morris and Rodney rent a convertible so they can drive without a top. We’d expect nothing else from our daredevils. Baum and Karen rent a standard, practical four-door, Connie sleeps most the way in the back. Tracy drives her own car, her new boyfriend Ever in the passenger seat. I used to be her boyfriend. We are forward thinkers. We are up-to-date. We stay best friends with our exes.
All of us except Oliver.
Tracy is worried sick about Oliver. She started the panic amongst us, truth be told, but it’s not like Tracy to panic and that’s why the worry took root. He doesn’t sound like himself on the phone, she tells us. Doesn’t sound like the same person at all. So what? We say, us, not worried yet. But it’s not just his voice, Tracy says, it’s the content of what he’s talking about. Like when a character in a dream speaks a language the dreamer doesn’t know. She’s worried. We talk about it. We call Oliver together. When we hang up, we debate.
No, he doesn’t sound like himself. Wow. Not at all. Even his voice is a little different. Right? Doesn’t sound anything like the shell of a man who had to leave New York City for the country. A farm he inherited. Maybe that’s good? Maybe we should be happy for Oliver?
But we’re not. So we call him back. Only this time he doesn’t answer. Rodney reminds us he said he was heading out into the fields when we talked to him an hour ago. But it’s late night. Dark. Is Oliver… farming?
Doesn’t make sense. But okay. People can change. Oliver’s been gone six months at this point. It’s possible we’re being dramatic. We are dramatic. Naturally. Often by choice.
We get to talking about Oliver and Donna.
It’s unfair for me begin this story, the story I was told, what happened out on the farm, without first expressing, if I’m able, how terrible Oliver and Donna’s breakup was. It was full-throttle heart-shatter, a fractured man poisoned with confusion, anger, despair. There was so much sorrow involved that Oliver didn’t even turn to drinking. Rodney says that’s when you know something’s cut the deepest. When you can’t even muster the energy to throw your life away.
Donna dumped Oliver. Maybe we all saw it coming. Hard to say. We certainly knew something had to happen. Yet, in some ways they were a great couple. And isn’t that the case with the legendarily incendiary ones? A sense that the loathing you witness, the flames that spread, that the pair have touched a rare stone, unveiled a corner of the heart, that they’ve sunk to a place so low you almost want to see it for yourself?
I suppose we were mesmerized by their dysfunction. I suppose they entertained us. I suppose I’m ashamed of that now.
But at the time, who knew? Opposites attract, all that. Oliver with his slouch, his shyness, the look in his eye that suggested he was constantly postulating layers more complex than anything the rest of us felt up to fathoming. Passive Oliver Carpenter with his blonde hair and white T-shirts, torn sneakers and jeans. And on the other side, Donna with her leviathan presence, her hats, her bags, her opinions. On everything. At first take, yes, an odd couple. Some might have mistaken it for Donna wanting a meek man or Oliver needing someone to speak for him. But I know better. Often, troubled brilliance recognizes troubled brilliance. And the minds of those two were singing songs on frequencies the rest of us couldn’t find on the dial.
They found love.
They found despair in that love.
They found something close to violence in that love that was no longer love.
And Donna, rightly, wisely, ended it. She cut the cord with a shiv. From there, Oliver stopped going to work. Oliver ran out of money. Oliver had no leads, no gumption, no future.
Oliver’s grandfather died, leaving him a farm, barn and all, all the way out there in Michigan.
So… Karen is the first to suggest he goes to it. Get out of the city, Olly. You need a break, Olly. You need a fresh start.
At first, Oliver ignores all this. Then, he considers.
Then he agrees.
We party. It’s emotional. It feels like a good thing, too. He leaves the next day. He takes the Greyhound. Has a paperback in his hand the last time I see him. And almost immediately upon his exit, the rest of us begin adding what at first feels like dramatic flourishes to every update we receive.
Months pass. We have fun with it. We exaggerate. Oliver the farmhand now. Oliver with a pitchfork. Oliver planting seeds.
We talk about overalls and buttermilk, country roads and cows. Yet, all the while, a seriousness is creeping in.
Tracy starts to worry.
It’s not just Oliver’s setting that’s changed, she says. It’s him.
Almost six months after he leaves, we’re at Baum and Karen’s. We’re drinking. Ever is sitting beside Tracy, he with his white wine, she with her beer. Rodney brings up Oliver and things get heated fast, too fast I note. Tracy says,
“Oliver has fundamentally changed.”
It’s like someone has bumped into the record player but nobody has, the record keeps spinning, summer music courtesy of feel-good Morris.
Baum responds to Tracy first.
“Nobody is capable of fundamental change.”
I can tell a debate is up, sure as an order bell in a diner.
“That’s actually not true,” Ever says. He has a way of saying things with finality. I haven’t quite warmed up to it. It’s not that I’m opposed to strong opinions, God no, but there’s a bedside manner to everything. He says, “With a little work you can be anybody.”
“Wrong,” Karen says. She’s direct like this. Always has been.
Rodney agrees with her.
“We’re born with something,” he says. “Tendencies. Traits.”
“Maybe who he was in the city wasn’t the real him,” I say. Because we’re talking about Oliver, after all.”
“Okay,” Tracy says, “but we still know him. The city might change someone, but that someone is still… them.”
“I don’t know,” Rodney says. “We met him here. Only really know him here.”
“He was in a bad place,” Karen says. “It was hard.”
“He had moments, though,” Baum says.
Oliver Carpenter, human Rorschach test.
“We don’t know him at all,” Ever says. Big, handsome Ever. “We don’t know anybody at all.”
“Nonsense,” Karen says. Raven-haired, blue-eyed, straight-shooting Karen. “We know each other like anybody knows anybody. You can sense the core of a person.”
“The core?” Morris asks. Theatrical, blond, always-in-a-blazer-and-a-button-up- unbuttoned Morris.
“The center,” Karen says, bothered. She guzzles some wine. “Everything doesn’t have to be such a philosophical riddle. We know what we know.”
“The core,” Morris says again. He smiles. He gets up and flips the record. “I like that.”
Ever holds out a flat palm. Tracy’s boyfriend. The kind of guy who, once the day comes when we disperse into our respective futures, is going to get promotion after promotion into forever.
I like Ever. I just wish he wasn’t so confident in everything he says.
I sip my own beer.
“Is there anything you believed as a child that you don’t believe now? Anything big?” Ever asks Baum.
“That’s a trap question,” Rodney says.
“He’s right,” I say. “You’re setting him up to say he believed in Santa or Jesus as a kid but doesn’t now, to which you’ll say is proof of a person changing, fundamentally.”
Ever only looks at me like, And?
“So,” I say, “you gotta prove to us someone can change the core person they are. Can you do that?”
“I’ve done it myself,” Ever says. He rolls his dress shirt to his elbows. I suppose you could say he’s the least bohemian of our lot.
“You need to give us an example,” Baum says.
Ever accepts the challenge. I imagine this is why Tracy likes him.
“Before meeting Tracy I didn’t believe in love,” Ever says.
The rest of us groan. Even Tracy looks to the table.
“That does not count,” Morris says.
“Why not?” Ever asks.
“Because first off,” Rodney says, “love can be, and usually is, temporary.” He looks to Morris. “Sorry, darling.”
“Don’t sorry me,” Morris says. “I’m relieved to hear you already know this. I was building up the nerve to tell you.”
This gets a laugh. It feels, now, like the last real laugh we all shared.
The door to the flat opens. Connie enters. This time the record actually does come to a stop, albeit naturally, the end of side two.
She looks to the group of us, eyes two wide orbs in the darkness by the door.
“I just got off the phone with Oliver,” she says. “Are you guys as fucking weirded out by him as I am right now?”
And so begins talk of a road trip. Time to check on our friend. Is he doing well? Let’s find out. Is something amiss? Is he feigning doing well? We discuss dates for days. We discuss buses and trains. We square it all up with Oliver.
We ramp up the idea of a night in the country. A night on the farm.
It sounds like a good time. Like the water to put out our dramatic fire.
We just wanna see him, see? We just wanna see the face of our friend.
We agree on a date. My chance at being part of the trip is stolen by a job I’ve held for a measly four days. The temp job asks me to go to St. Louis. I foolishly say yes. I need the money. Who doesn’t? Even those of us who believe we live under the radar can hear its signal now and again.
So seven friends who believe they know themselves drive seven hundred miles to check on an eighth who has become unrecognizable.
Or has he?
Shouldn’t this be a good thing? Didn’t Oliver leave the city for change?
Is it so concerning that we feel compelled to make a journey, a quest, of it?
To Oliver, then!
It certainly feels that important to Tracy as she drives west, Ever in the passenger seat, Ever never having driven a car in his life. They listen to good music, great music, and discuss things like the theater, New York City, and America. As they pass from Pennsylvania into Ohio, they can feel the release of the Big City. A pressure valve opened. Trees and sky ahead. So much of both.
In the other cars, practical Baum estimates distance and time, passing the hours with silent math. Karen reads in the passenger seat. Connie sleeps off a hangover in the back.
Morris and Rodney wave to the people they pass. They holler out Road Trip! They crank the music loud. Morris moons Baum and Karen.
As the caravan crosses from Ohio into Michigan, all are feeling pretty good about the decision to go. It’s an adventure. It’s new. It’s life.
They’re going to see a friend. Nothing more. Not much, anyway.
Yet, at a gas station near Detroit, Tracy texts me.
I just want him to be okay.
He will be.
I just want him to be Oliver.
By the time they reach Gibbons, Michigan, home of Oliver Carpenter’s farm, as Tracy has just gotten used to the sight of endless crops and endless fields, just as New York has faded into the unreal and this, the country, becomes the new setting, the new world, everybody knows we’ve done the right thing.
We’ve decided to check on a friend. I only wish I can be there, too.
Twelve wheels crunch gravel as they pull into the drive. The sun is still up.
They get out of their cars. They stretch. They can hardly believe how nice the place is.
They leave their bags for later and ascend the porch steps. Tracy imagines the Oliver she knows and loves living inside this picturesque farmhouse.
“Did he see us pull up?” Karen asks.
But as she lifts her hand to knock on the door, it opens.